Don Alberto and Doña Mitzi

As mentioned in my prior post, contact with a variety of Latin Americans has sustained my attraction to the region following an academic introduction through my undergraduate studies. Although various cultural, linguistic and interpretive barriers may arise in intercultural encounters, interactions can be very gratifying when meaningful connections are made. Carol and I were fortunate to share such an experience with a couple residing in Vicuña, located in Chile’s beautiful Valle de Elqui.

Don and Doña are courtesy titles applied to mature adults, people who have earned the respect of others in their community. Doña Silvia “Mitzi” Díaz Cortés was born into a prominent Valle de Elqui family whose business interests included exporting chinchilla pelts. She and her husband Don Alberto Varas Vivanco live in the ample family home built in 1875, and offer lodging in several rooms. Other rooms comprise a small museum providing glimpses into the region’s past, from an upper class perspective. (Other historical sites in the area emphasize the life and work of Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral, and represent lifestyles of Elqui’s more humble inhabitants.)

We met Don Alberto when he served us breakfast to assist Doña Mitzi. He pitches in as needed, but she handles the museum and accommodation business. Such balance was reflected in other aspects of their relationship, such as Mitzi learning basics of aviation and engineering in order to discuss Alberto’s work and interests with him, and Alberto following Mitzi’s school lessons to be able to do the same. Due to conflicting work schedules, the couple organized their time together creatively; Don Alberto emphasized love and mutual respect as key to the couple’s enduring relationship. Although such long-distance relationships are a dynamic often associated with 21st century lifestyles, they predate recent social developments. Here are a few other topics that arose in our conversations, including my subsequent reflections on them.

  • Don Alberto is essentially self-educated, having begun working at ten years old on the docks of San Antonio, Chile. He steadily assumed greater responsibilities on the docks before switching to railroad work that improved his mechanical knowledge, and repairing/maintaining projection equipment, which taught him optics and electronics. Service in the military reserves introduced Don Alberto to aviation. He took every course possible—such as aerodynamics, meteorology, instrument flight—became a flight instructor in the Chilean Air Force, and later served as an on-call pilot for corporate executives and government officials. His background recalled my own male predecessors who were mechanically oriented, worked in multiple professions and were largely self-taught (save my father, an astrophysicist). It also reminded me of media professors’ frequent admonitions to our students to ‘learn how to learn’ in order to improve one’s odds for long-term success in volatile communication industries.
  • As Carol and I admired some beautiful pottery placed around the house, Doña Mitzi explained its origin. She created it in a workshop that she had developed while completing an unchallenging teaching assignment. In a situation where others might have simply reduced their productivity, Doña Mitzi honed a skill through a gratifying creative outlet. Don Alberto told us a related story about learning the basics of chemical engineering while working in management at a mining company. Although some fellow managers resisted studying outside their areas of expertise, he insisted they do so because the knowledge was integral to the mine’s productivity and safe operation. These brief examples underscore the importance of actively considering one’s personal and professional circumstances, and of being adaptable to change.
  • Don Alberto also emphasized that teachers should be more than content experts, they must awaken an interest in learning among their students. This is an idea that academics pay ample lip service, but which requires more sustained attention. Tools to enhance learning have never been more powerful or broadly accessible than they are today, but have teachers’ abilities to spark and maintain our students’ interest and motivation kept pace? I fear not. Awakening inspiration in students is a primary responsibility of teachers, but one shared by all of society, and especially so among parents.
    At the risk of reinforcing a cliché, I acknowledge that interacting with Don Alberto and Doña Mitzi caused me to reflect on the orientations and contributions of a generation prior to theirs, that of my grandparents, the one Tom Brokaw famously dubbed “The Greatest Generation.” Their self-sufficiency and persistence in facing difficult challenges are traits I have long admired—and feared are in short supply among my own generation and those that have followed. As our lives become more complicated, and the gadgets that guide them more complex, we can benefit from following the examples of Don Alberto and Doña Mitzi who have achieved happiness through the thoughtful pursuit of balanced productivity, and who exude kindness and sincere interest in others.

Don Alberto and Doña Mitzi
Don Alberto and Doña Mitzi
Don Alberto and Doña Mitzi